You’ve heard it before. The familiar story of a female comics reader being first introduced to the wonderful world of graphic novels via Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Death. That was during my first year of grad school, almost 20 years ago. These now classic works started me on a path that would soon have me reading Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, and now Kelly Sue DeConnick.
Pretty Deadly Vol. 1 collects the first (and thus far only) 5 issues written by Kelly Sue DeConnick and illustrated by her Captain Marvel collaborator, Emma Rios. The series is ostensibly a western. The setting is the wild west, and nature looms threateningly over human life. The characters fall under the western tropes: cowboy, rancher, wanderer, prostitute. The themes deal with life and death, vengeance, love, and loss.
But this is not life and death so much as life and Death, and this is where the similarity to Sandman is so prominent. The world of morals is mirrored by an underworld–the world of the dead. Certain supernatural beings move among human beings. Besides Death, the story also features the Native American gods of Coyote and Raven, both trickster gods, though the former is more malevolent than the latter. They have their own responsibilities and motivations, and humans are bugs under their feet.
Pretty Deadly reveals its secrets like threads of truth being woven into an old Indian blanket. The narrative doesn’t move in the normal way but drops the reader in the mystery of this world, letting it enclose around them. The story itself is being told by a dead bunny to a butterfly. Weird, no? And yet, upon finishing the book (and then rereading it) the bunny-butterfly frame narrative made perfect creative sense and also added a thematic layer of depth. Each opening dialogue between the two strange friends offered a commentary on the coming issue’s action, like the chorus of a Greek play. Still, the mythology being woven here is not the straight-forward didacticism of Sophocles. Pretty Deadly rewards the reread.
Although I wasn’t a fan of Emma Rios’s wispy, surreal style in Captain Marvel, her art here fits the story, setting, and tone perfectly. Her illustrations have an airy darkness to them that suggest the nightmarish aspects of the novel. While the fight scenes aren’t as clear plot-wise, they evoke the movement and tension of the action. When magical transformations take place, like when a reaper loses form, the style of her artwork flows with the blending images.
Pretty Deadly is a fantastic comic of depth, archetypal symbolism, emotion, wisdom, and wit. If you haven’t read it and are a fan of DeConnick’s other work or Gaiman’s Sandman, pick this up now. The second arc of the story begins in September with issue #6.